August 2013

By Phyllis Dawson
Part 1

I gazed out the window at the near-vertical rocky wall of the mountainside, not fifty feet from the right wingtip of the little Cessna.  Looking up through the mist, I could see a hanging glacier in the valley above us.  We cleared the mountain pass and the earth fell far beneath us as we soared over rolling tundra-clad slopes.  Dropping down from the dizzying heights, the small 4-seater plane banked to the right, and a long turquoise lake came into view.  The surrounding mountains were a blended palette of green and brown and gray, as dark forests at the bases gave way to the rock and tundra above the treeline.  The highest peaks were draped in pristine white.  
Aloft, we could see no signs of civilization, just a perfect vista of mountains, valleys, glaciers and lakes.  In fact, we had seen virtually no signs of human habitation for the last hundred miles.  But descending and skirting the shoreline, we finally sighted the log cabin, nestled among the trees beside a curved stretch of rocky beach.  Our float plane touched down on the choppy surface of the lake, and we coasted in to the tiny dock in the sheltered cove.  We were here.  The Windsong Wilderness Retreat, on the Upper Twin Lake, Lake Clark National Park.  One hundred thirty nine miles from Anchorage and probably fifty miles from the nearest town, and the only privately owned cabin in the whole Twin Lakes region.  Our home for the next five days.

The Windsong Wilderness Retreat.

     I have always had kind of a fantasy about living in the wilderness, and now, at least for several days, I was getting the chance to live the dream.  Alaska is one of the few places left in the world where you can look on views that few have seen.
It started when my friend Jineen and I had visited Alaska the first time, back in 2008.  While hiking along a stream, we met up with a fisherman who told us how he had just spent a week in a cabin on a remote lake in the wilderness, accessible only by floatplane.  We had thought it sounded amazing, so when it was time to plan this trip I searched online for such a place, and that is how I found the Windsong cabin.

     In researching the trip, I talked to Gary, the owner and builder of the Windsong Wilderness Retreat.  He told us that the cabin had a wood stove for heat and a gas stove for cooking.  There would be firewood and propane for fuel, and we would get our water from the lake.  He said the hiking and fishing were great.  There is a motorboat and a canoe.  We would need to bring our own food, sleeping bags and fishing gear, and he recommended a gun for protection from bears.  We would be totally on our own.
Jineen and I thought this cabin in the wilderness sounded like heaven.  When I told friends about our travel plans I got a very mixed reaction;
half the people I talked to thought the trip sounded like the coolest thing ever, and the other half said we were crazy.  My brother George was one of those who thought the trip sounded great.  He had been making plans for a fishing trip with some buddies on Kodiak Island, and it turned out that the timing worked out perfectly for him to join us at Twin Lakes first.  He volunteered to bring the fishing gear and a gun.  
I learned from Gary that Twin Lakes had been the home of
Dick Proenneke, an iconic Alaskan who built a cabin there in 1968 at the age of 51, and then lived in it by himself, year-round, for the next thirty years.  He built the cabin and furniture all with hand tools, using logs and materials he found there at the lake.  He was a naturalist and a photographer, and he lived lightly off the land, fishing and gathering what he needed, and only hunting when absolutely necessary.  He documented the building of his cabin and his life at Twin Lakes both with film and pen; over the years he became somewhat of a cult hero for his book entitled One Man’s Wilderness and for his nature documentaries.  After reading the book and watching the films, we could hardly wait to get there.  We hoped to live like Dick Proenneke had, as much as possible, at least for five days.

George, Jineen and Phyllis.

     I booked an air taxi to fly us from Anchorage and drop us off at Twin Lakes, and then pick us up again five days later.  The air taxi owner knew the area and was giving us some tips on the use of the boat and what to take with us.  He said that the lake was very cold, and we could refrigerate our food by putting it in the water.  I told him that the owner, Gary, had specifically warned us against putting any food outside the cabin because it would attract bears.  “Oh, he’s just over-sensitive about that stuff,” replied the pilot.  “Ever since he and his girlfriend got mauled by that grizzly.”   

August 20
Having arrived in Anchorage after midnight the previous night, we were glad our flight to Twin Lakes wasn’t until early afternoon.  After breakfast at the hotel, we called a mini-van taxi and used the morning to shop for food, wine, fishing lures and bear spray.  We rented a satellite phone for emergencies, and headed to the Lake Hood seaplane base.
     Hundreds of small air charter businesses are based at Lake Hood, and thousands of tiny float planes line the shore. We arrived at Regal Air with our luggage and supplies.  Our total weight allotment for the flight was 900 pounds, including the three of us with all of our gear and food.  We all needed to take sleeping bags, warm clothes, rain gear, hiking boots, and camera equipment.  George had also brought fishing tackle for all three of us, his tall waders, a water purifier, and a borrowed rifle.  It is hard to pack light in such circumstances; George and I were counting on the fact that Jineen doesn’t weight much in order to be able to eat.  Between our weight and the baggage, we figured it left us less than 100 pounds for food.  Uh-oh, we might have bought too many groceries.
     We heaped all of our gear on the large scales by the pier and climbed on with it - we weighed in at 921.  We had been sweating it, but the air taxi pilot seemed unconcerned by the overweight; apparently taking off is the big thing - if they can get the plane in the air with the extra weight then you are all right.  We stuffed all of our baggage into the little Cessna floatplane, and climbed in after it.

     Patches of blue sky peeked out between sailing clouds, and a light wind ruffled the surface of the water as we lifted off from the lake.  Our pilot, Craig, had no trouble getting the plane airborne, and we headed out across Cook Inlet.  Craig was an excellent tour guide, relating several amusing and possibly true stories about Captain Cook and the Captain of the Exxon Valdez.  The tidal range in this inlet is an astounding 35 feet; mud flats at low tide become deep water as the tide rips in with treacherous speed.  Craig pointed out some dots of white in the water far below us and dropped the plane lower so we could take a look; it was a pod of pure white beluga whales, feeding on the salmon.    
Soon we were in the mountains, heading into Lake Clark National Park, a four million acre nature preserve accessible only by air taxi or boat.  Our little plane wound its way among the peaks, staying beneath the ceiling of clouds that topped the summits.  Glaciers and ice fields filled the high valleys, and frothy streams cascaded down the steep mountainsides in long waterfalls to find the lakes and rivers below.  Craig told us that there are over one hundred thousand glaciers in Alaska, and from this lofty perspective we could believe it.

Up close and personal with the glaciers as we fly through Lake Clark Pass.

     Crossing through Lake Clark Pass, we were treated to close-up views of rockslides, crevasses and sheer walls of rock, often not more than fifty feet from our wingtips as we gazed out the windows in awe.  We could see the blue-green ice of glaciers above us, and each time we rounded the shoulder of another mountain we looked up into a new hidden valley.  The scenery was beautiful and dramatic - it was worth the whole trip just for that plane ride.  

The Upper Twin Lake

     Descending from the heights, Twin Lakes stretched before us.  Craig made a pass close to the shore of the upper lake and pointed out Dick Proenneke’s cabin, now owned by the U.S. Park Service.  Then he swung in a wide U-turn and landed the floatplane near the opposite shore, where we could see the Windsong cabin and its outbuildings.  He taxied into the cove, and we scrambled out onto the small floating dock, which was pitching in the waves and wind.  It was a challenge getting our gear and food onto shore without either it or us ending up in the lake.  Craig lifted off in the little Cessna, and waggled his wings to us as he headed down the valley.  We would be totally on our own, until the plane returned for us five days later.  


     Twin Lakes is a pair of long deep glacier-fed lakes, set end to end and joined by a connecting stream. The Windsong Retreat is on the north shore of the Upper Twin Lake, in the midst of the four million acres of wilderness that comprise Lake Clark National Park.  There are no roads to this park.  In summer small floatplanes can land on the lakes, and in winter they exchange the floats for skis and land on the frozen snow-covered lakes, but during fall freeze-up and spring break-up there is no access.
     The cabin sits about a hundred feet from the lake, surrounded by spruce forest.  It is made from shaped logs with a metal roof.  Above the door hangs a massive set of caribou antlers.  There is a short flight of stairs up to a railed balcony porch, with a beautiful view through the trees of the lake and the mountains beyond.  In front of the sturdy front door and the windows lay bear mats; big doormats covered with a forest of heavy-duty 3-inch nails, pointing straight upwards.  The large picture window had a thick sheet of plywood bolted over it to deter bears while the cabin was unoccupied; we removed it according to directions.  We noticed deep claw marks on the logs beneath the windows on the side of the cabin.

Our cabin

     Inside, the lower floor was split between a living room/dining area with a picture window at the front of the cabin, and the kitchen and woodstove area to the rear.  A rustic staircase led upstairs to a sleeping loft with beds.  The kitchen had propane-powered lights and stove, and a sink with a drain, though no running water of course.  There were plenty of cooking and eating utensils, including an impressive array of heavy iron skillets hanging from a beam.  Following the written directions provided, we turned on the propane so the lights and stove would work.  There was a woodshed just outside the kitchen window, and a thermometer on a nearby tree read 42 degrees.  Soon we had a nice fire going in the woodstove. 

      A hundred yards further up the path stood the outhouse.  It was a work of art, complete with Dutch doors, beartrap door handles, a notebook of reading material (mostly bear jokes) and a nice view up the mountain.  We couldn’t help but notice the large claw marks on the outside of the bottom door, and some tooth marks around the handle.         

The Outhouse, and bear mats, which we put out each time we left the cabin.

    We checked out the rest of the property.  Down by the lake a log porch swing was suspended from an A-frame.  There was a boat fuel storage shed, a shower house, and a high storage cache, raised on stilts.  An outboard motorboat sat on skids not far from the dock, secured by a cable with a winch, and there was a canoe nearby as well.  A path, graveled with stones from the beach, led up past the cabin and the outhouse.  There was a second cabin up the hill with just sleeping quarters, to accommodate additional guests.  An unfinished third cabin appeared to be under construction. 

The view from the porch.

     There was an instruction book in the cabin with directions and guidelines for using the propane tank, the woodstove, and the boat.  It cautioned us to be sure to put down the bear mats any time we left the cabin, and to never, never leave food outside.  The book also charged the guests with two tasks: water the plants in the flower boxes, and feed the jays.  There was plenty of rain to keep the flowerboxes moist, but we took the duty of feeding the jays seriously.  The guestbook said their favorite food was pancakes, but they had to make do with bits of bread that first evening.  We put crumbs on the top of the railing posts, and the little gray birds would swoop down and grab them, then fly away. 

Gray Jay

     By six o'clock we were settled in to the cabin, so we went for a walk through the woods.  We thought we might hike to the waterfall above the cabin.  Following Gary’s directions in the guestbook we took the trail above the outhouse, but soon it became very overgrown and hard to follow.  The faint track seemed to parallel the lakeshore rather than climb up toward the waterfall, and we realized we must not be on the right path. 
     The dense forest, mostly spruce, was quiet, primeval even.  Often we passed openings where we could catch a glimpse of the lake through the trees.  Recent showers left every leaf and twig holding droplets of water, and we were glad of our rain gear.  As we made our way through blueberry patches and thick undergrowth, we called out at intervals, “Hello Mr. Bear,” proper etiquette to avoid surprising a bear and inviting confrontation.  We saw moose tracks and bear scat.  We hiked for close to two hours, but never made it anywhere near the waterfall.        


     We took Happy Hour by the lake; sitting in the swing seat and using a stump as a table, we had cheese and crackers with wine.  We had been warned about mosquitoes, but there were none.  It was a bit too chilly to stay out there for long; back inside we built up the fire in the woodstove, making the cabin warm and cozy.  We cooked steaks for dinner, figuring we better have them the first night as we had no refrigerator.  It was still light at ten o'clock.   
When Jineen and I went upstairs at bedtime (George was sleeping on the couch downstairs), we found to our dismay that hot air rises, and from the wood stove burning downstairs, the loft was about 85 degrees.  This was way beyond cozy.  But a few opened windows soon remedied that, and we went to sleep happily, anticipating the next day.  

 Continued on next page ~

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